Environmental Groups File Court Challenge on California Rooftop Solar Policy

Three environmental and clean energy advocacy groups filed a lawsuit late Wednesday in California challenging recent changes to how the state compensates homeowners for the electricity their rooftop solar panels generate, in a bid to push for reconsideration of the policy. 

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Working Group, and the Protect Our Communities Foundation allege that California utility regulators, who in December approved a policy change that would significantly lower compensation for new rooftop solar projects, erred in their decision by not properly accounting for all of the costs and benefits of those systems. 

The groups also allege that the program changes violate state law by failing to adequately support the growth of home solar, particularly in “disadvantaged communities,” which the state identifies based on environmental, economic and health impacts. A 2013 state law that mandated the commission devise a new version of the program said rooftop solar should continue to grow under the new policy. 

The groups filed a rehearing request in January asking the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) to review its decision, which the commission has not responded to, and in March sent the commission a letter signed by 165 climate and community groups asking for a delay in implementing the policy, which  went into effect on April 15. 

“We gave the commission, or the CPUC, ample opportunity to fix this decision,” said Roger Lin, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We felt that we had no choice but to take this to court.”

California has worked for nearly three years to update how it values and compensates electricity produced by solar panels on homeowners’ roofs. The negotiations around the policy, called “net metering,” have been fraught, at times dividing traditional alliances between groups who generally advocate for clean energy. The state hosts more home solar projects than any other, and the changes, which reduce compensation by about 75 percent, are expected to dampen growth in coming years. Many view distributed solar as a key element in California’s efforts to fight climate change. 

Much of the debate about the policy has revolved around a “cost shift” associated with the program. Utilities, consumer advocates and some environmental groups argue that the credits earned by wealthier residents who install solar on their roofs and sell power they generate back to the grid leave a smaller number of customers to shoulder the costs of maintaining and upgrading the poles and wires that transport electricity. Net metering and grid maintenance amounted to more than $3 billion on the bills of non-solar customers in 2021, according to the California Public Advocates Office, a consumer advocate. 

But the petitioners  argue that this cost shift framework is misguided and does not fully account for all of the benefits that rooftop solar provides to the electric system, particularly the potential to avoid investment in big power lines, which utilities pay for and profit from via consumer rates. The groups argue the commission also did not quantify home solar benefits like avoiding land impacts from larger infrastructure, reduced air pollution, and reductions in methane leaks associated with the gas that California imports to produce electricity.

The commission’s decision included additional incentives to boost solar deployment in low-income communities. But by lowering compensation overall, the petitioners said the commission will make rooftop solar more unattainable. They’re asking the court to require the commission to reconsider. 

“By making rooftop solar more expensive, it’s just going to harm working class families the most,” said Lin. 

Matthew Freedman, a staff attorney at The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group that said the commission did not go far enough to address the cost-shift for non-solar customers, said the lawsuit is premature because commissioners have not responded to the rehearing request the groups filed in January. And he expects the case will face steep odds in winning its “preferred policy outcomes.” 

“The courts have typically been very reluctant to second-guess factual determinations made by the CPUC given the complexity of the issues,” Freedman said in an email. 

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California will continue adding new home solar installations despite the new policy, though at a significantly diminished rate in coming years, according to energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. But the decline in new projects won’t come for many months. Due to a rush of customers looking to take advantage of the existing compensation before April 15, one solar company has a backlog of more than 20,000 projects, according to Wood Mackenzie, though installers did detect a dip in demand starting on the day the new policy went into effect.  

The utility commission, and investor-owned utilities that were named as “real parties in interest” in the suit, have 30 days to respond. The commission may still reply to the request that the groups filed in January. A CPUC spokesperson said in an email that the commission would respond as part of the suit’s litigation process and plans to consider pending applications for rehearing at a meeting in June.  

Changes to California’s policy could have implications far outside the state. States across the nation have grappled with the complexities of how to pay for the costs and benefits associated with rooftop solar. Those policies are highly variable based on local politics and policy, although California is often viewed as an example in matters related to clean energy.  

“We have a lot of debates around the exact value of solar,” Mohit Chhabra, a senior scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program, told Inside Climate News in December before California regulators finalized the new policy. “Nationally, we need to get smarter about how do we compensate solar appropriately.”

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